Air Force rape case tossed out (8/08/03)


Charges against an Air Force officer accused of raping an academy cadet last year have been withdrawn. The decision, disclosed Thursday, could reflect the difficulty prosecuting 'he said, she said' cases - those with no physical evidence, witnesses or injuries, said Frank Spinner, the NORAD officer's defense attorney. It also could explain why some academy sex-crime cases haven't seen the inside of a courtroom, Spinner said. Second Lt. Ronen M. Segal said in a statement he is "relieved" 21st Space Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Duane Deal followed the investigating officer's recommendation to drop charges of rape, forcible sodomy and dereliction of duty by providing alcohol to a minor.

The decision ends the case, although Deal could impose nonjudicial punishment for dereliction of duty, which was recommended by the investigating officer. Spinner said Segal "looks forward to serving his country and is prepared to fulfill his educational commitment by pursuing an Air Force career."

The woman who accused Segal could not be reached for comment. According to testimony at a July 15 evidentiary hearing, Segal drove the freshman, then 18, to his apartment last August and offered her wine. She drank roughly six glasses. Segal led her to the bedroom where they had sex. The woman said her drunkenness caused her to float in and out of consciousness. She later told her boyfriend about it and had sex with him the same night. She reported the incident to investigators Jan. 29 after her grades and military performance slipped, which she attributed to the assault.

In his recommendation, investigating officer Army Col. William Sells Jr. said the woman was capable of giving or withholding consent and "did not in any way object to or resist" sex. Although consensual sodomy was a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has placed that in doubt, Spinner said, and the sodomy charge was withdrawn pending a legal review.

Segal's case has been of interest because it involved a cadet but was handled by the post where the officer was serving, Peterson Air Force Base.

The academy's handling of sexual assault cases is under investigation after dozens of women claimed academy officials dismissed their sexual assault reports - claims that have grabbed headlines and Congress' attention and spawned four inquiries. "It clearly demonstrates there are circumstances where a female cadet believes she was raped but under the law it doesn't even meet the probable cause standard," Spinner said. "It shows the challenges commanders face in trying to resolve these kinds of claims." Spinner said the case also renews debate over why the academy has ordered the court-martial of a cadet charged with rape in a similar case.

Douglas L. Meester, 20, is accused by a freshman no longer at the academy of raping her at a dormitory tequila party. The woman, whose January letter to Pentagon and academy officials prompted the investigations, told investigators she could see why Meester thought the sex was consensual. She testified she never resisted or said "no," but that the six or seven shots of tequila impaired her consciousness. The investigating officer recommended against court-martial, and a staff judge advocate said jurors likely would not convict on rape and sodomy.

Yet on June 30, academy Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, part of a new regime installed as a result of the scandal, called for a trial.

Meester's government attorneys didn't comment on the Segal decision, but Spinner said it could be used to support an unlawful command influence allegation. Air Force Secretary James Roche and Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper have said offenders will be dealt with harshly, but the Air Force has denied interference, saying such claims can be raised at trial.

Meester has asked for permission to resign instead of being put on trial, a request only the secretary can grant. He's also asked academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa Jr. to reconsider Weida's decision.